You'd think for someone who had shot as many sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, and dickheads as Raylan Givens has, he wouldn't really worry too much about the precise direction of his bullets; they always seem to find their targets. But early on in "The Gunfighter," the first episode of Justified's third season, we find the wounded federal marshal, on the shooting range, trying to correct his aim.
Here's the thing: Raylan Givens never really misses. That's one of the beauties and burdens of this show. Call it what you want: neo-Western, rural crime, workplace comedy, there's one thing it definitively is: comfort food. God, I love comfort food.
Given the sheer amount of coverage over the last few days — interviews, essays, anticipatory posting of GIFs — it almost felt like Justified's first episode back was going to reveal what was in the hatch (or perhaps more appropriately, abandoned coal mine) (we already know: It was Coover). There is no hatch on Justified. Accepting this is part of understanding and ultimately enjoying it.
The show, which is some kind of holy collaboration between novelist Elmore Leonard, showrunner/creator Graham Yost, and star Timothy Olyphant, finds itself at a point where two bumpy country roads diverge. The first season, while fantastically entertaining, was light on consequences, as a man-shootin', lady-seducin', whiskey-drinkin' marshal begrudgingly returned to his old Kentucky stomping grounds to do battle with some enemies, old and new.
In the second season, we got to the heart of the heart of the country and shit got real. Olyphant's Raylan Givens was drawn back into the holler from which he came. Issues of poverty, power (corporate and criminal), and loyalty came up, and in Margo Martindale's Shakespearean matriarch Mags Bennett, Justified found a villain worthy not only of Raylan's bullets, but of his respect. Givens lost a family member and found out he'd be adding another. At the end of the season, the spoil was all around.
Justified is capable of being two shows: a kiss-kiss-bang-bang go-cup of witty, well-acted, country-cop brilliance as well as something more, something that takes an entire season to unfold and takes characters to uncomfortable, life-changing places.
Which road will Season 3 choose? "The Gunfighter" was a little bit of both and made me wonder, does it even have to choose? Grab some "Apple Pie." It's time to shoot out the lights.
According to his boss Art, he's fat. According to his wife-ex-wife-wife Winona, he's getting old. According to his co-worker Tim, he does the "pee-pee dance." Watch out, world: Raylan Givens is on desk duty.
Three weeks after the Crowder-Bennett showdown that cost Mags Bennett her life, sent Dickie Bennett to jail, and landed Raylan and Ava Crowder in the hospital, our favorite marshal is back at work, gingerly pushing paper and (for him, at least) excitedly expecting a little Palmolive or Jiffy Pop Givens with Winona. (Biggest bummer of these early scenes was the news that they might finally move out of Raylan's cozy, much-ambushed and shot-at motel room. We'll always have that Super 8 off Route 421, right, baby?)
While Raylan's been making up baby names (and having pregnancy sex), a Mags Bennett-sized hole has opened in Harlan County, luring everyone from Boyd Crowder and Raylan's daddy to the previously shadowy Dixie Mafia.
For two full seasons, the Dixie Mafia has roamed in the background of Justified like a villain to be named later. With the arrival of Neil McDonough's bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, secretary-seducing, derringer-packing heavy from Detroit, it seems this cartel will finally come to the fore. If this means more Jere Burns, whose Wynn Duffy installs security systems and generally threatens the security of Lexington and its outer-lying suburbs, then I'm all for it.
First we have to say hi (and eventually bye) to the bad guys. Emmitt Arnett is the de facto head of the Dixie Mafia. He's screwing his secretary and borrowing too much money from the Detroit mob. Another really good business decision he's made is to hire someone named Ice Pick (played by Desmond Harrington) to sit around his office, wear fedoras, and play fun parlor games with rich folks and pizza delivery men before he peels back their wigs.
When Ice Pick, a federal fugitive, robs said rich people of their fine timepieces, a Tim Gutterson-shaped bat signal goes up over Lexington and the world's funniest sniper is called into action. He brings Raylan along for the ride, who of course gets to have all the fun. There's a fantastically funny interrogation of Wynn Duffy outside a trailer, a tense elevator ride with Ice Pick (and an old lady), and some day drinking with Arnett's secretary.
While Tim and his partners in office hilarity, Art and Rachel, try to track down Ice Pick at a Lexington bus stop, the sallow-faced psycho goes after Raylan. Why? Because at some point during any given episode of Justified, Raylan Givens needs to be face-to-face with his adversary. And then he needs to shoot him.
With Winona in the role of the rich folk and/or pizza delivery guy, we count down to the moment when Ice Pick and Raylan can go for the same gun. This not being his first homicidal rodeo, Raylan realizes that anyone so widely known as Ice Pick probably has an ice pick somewhere on his person. One creative use of a tablecloth later, Ice Pick is shot through the shoulder and the family Givens is safe and sound.
But some new powers are rising in them thar hills. McDonough's nameless Detroit bad boy is staying in town for the foreseeable future, and Ava Crowder has decided to take over for the imprisoned Boyd, making decisions for Devil, Arlo, and the gang that couldn't shoot straight.
- Some shows start their seasons in a frenzy, introducing tons of characters, narrative themes, and plotlines. At Season 3, Justified is too old for that shit. This season will start out in a low gear, slowly gaining traction, making pit stops and pulling over to admire the scenery before barreling downhill with faulty brakes and no muffler.
- With that in mind, there wasn't a ton at stake here. In fact, Harrington's Ice Pick, who's was almost too idiosyncratic to make it through the hour, never really felt like a threat, no matter how shocking it was when he surprisingly popped up in Raylan and Winona's recently redecorated room. It was interesting, though, that Raylan, perhaps his aim possibly off a few degrees, only winged the Batman-voiced bad guy. Much like Boyd Crowder in the first episode of the series, Raylan may have wished he'd aimed for something a little more vital.
- Speaking of the first episode of the series, Justified famously begins with Raylan daring a Miami mafioso, Tommy Bucks, to draw down on him. This has apparently become underworld legend, as Ice Pick cites it as the reason he wants a shot at Raylan's belt. What's really of note here is the reemergence of pre-Kentucky life. We know that Carla Gugino is going to guest this season, playing a version of Karen Sisco, the role made famous by Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight (as well as Gugino herself, in a short-lived television show) and a beloved character in the fiction of Elmore Leonard. Seems like the Miami chapter of Raylan's life is not quite finished.
- Sometimes this show is too well written. Forget Chekhov's gun. In this episode we had Chekhov's ice pick, Chekhov's taxi cab, Chekhov's tablecloth. Every line of dialogue, every piece of advice, every element of the set seemed to have a payoff. It's admirable to see how nothing is wasted, but sometimes the textbook excellence of the writing can give every interaction and line of dialogue a loaded meaning.
MVP: Tim Gutterson. Easily my favorite non-Raylan character. Sniper Tim's trolling of office-bound Raylan was supreme. And his coaxing the Stetson-wearing bad boy into having a conversation with Wynn Duffy, even though Raylan told Duffy the next time they had a conversation there would be no conversation, was pretty great as well. Jacob Pitts' character was maybe best when he didn't say anything at all. As the great college football writer Spencer Hall tweeted out last night, "Tim's the king of leaning on things."
Best Line: "Raylan, I’m sorry. I would like to be of more help but I’ve gotta get back to watching women’s tennis." —Wynn Duffy
Hat Content: High. Special citation for a conversation about hats between Ice Pick and Raylan in the elevator. Silver medal goes to Arnett's secretary cooing over Raylan's hat while sipping a pre-death cosmo.
Raylan's Love Interest Threat Level: High. Anytime you make a pregnant Winona play Wild West Draw referee, you are shortening your own lifespan.
State of Boyd Crowder's Soul: Teetering. Boyd is back in the big house, but, using Ava as his proxy, he's looking to become the moldy weed king of rural Kentucky.
F-Yeah Ava Crowder Moment: Frying pan to Devil's face. She needed to make her point emphatically!
Villain of the Week: Neil McDonough is one of the season's main antagonists, so shout-out to the mumbling, parlor-game-playing, watch-lifting, security-system-installer-turned-homicidal-maniac Ice Pick.
Chris Ryan is an editor for Grantland.
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